Saturday, April 4, 2020

Little Women (2019)

Emma Watson as Meg
Saoirse Ronan as Jo
Eliza Scanlen as Beth
Florence Pugh as Amy
Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March
Laura Dern as Marmee
Meg March: I want to get married.
Jo March: WHY?
Meg March: I love him.
Jo March: You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.
Meg March: Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn't mean they're unimportant. I want a family and a home and I'm not scared of working and struggling, but I want to do it with John. ~from Little Women (2019)
I was not too enthusiastic about seeing the 2019 Gerwig version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, as I mentioned in a blog post. I guess it was because of the various reviews; I just cannot stand being constantly bludgeoned by feminist agitprop. However, the Gerwig production was no more feminist than past versions, and in many ways less so. Of course, Louisa May Alcott herself was a feminist, although the feminism of her time was not comparable to the extremism of today, since a high value was placed upon children and family life, family relationships being at the heart of Little Women. I found Gerwig's take on the story and characters to be utterly entrancing, making me fall in love with them all again, and remembering the impact the March family had upon me as a child, and how I wanted a house and a life like theirs if at all possible. It is now my favorite film version. Filmed on location in Concord, Massachusetts I could almost smell the New England crispness and cold. And Saoirse Ronan was born to play Jo, just as she was born to play Mary Stuart.

There were a few things I did not care for in the film, which I will get out of the way first. The way the timeline was seemingly shattered into a mosaic of disjointed scenes made the story very difficult to follow, even for those who are familiar with the plot. After watching it again, I saw more of a pattern in the way the scenes were arranged, with the past alongside the future almost as a foreshadowing. Woven in and out of the other scenes is a sequence showing Jo putting a love letter to Theodore "Laurie" Lawrence in their private mailbox in the woods, a letter which she will later retrieve and that he will never read. But the beginning and the near-ending segments, which frame the tale, are of Jo meeting with a gruff editor Mr. Dashwood, first as a young, new writer and later as an authoress who knows that what she has written is pure gold. It all came together gracefully by the conclusion of the movie.

Another thing I did not care for is that some of the hairstyles seemed inaccurate. After age sixteen or seventeen, women always wore their hair up in company, or at least in a hair net. In the film, even Mrs. March "Marmee" is shown with her hair trailing down in the middle of the day. And then Meg at her wedding...it just was strange. It seemed odd to have such an inauthentic departure when the costumes and sets were otherwise so perfect.

In the book, the March family is based upon Louisa May Alcott's own family, and the various film versions play up the similarities between the Marches and the Alcotts in different degrees. The 2019 portrayal closely identifies Jo March and Louisa May Alcott as being the same person, even though Jo marries while Louisa remained a spinster. Not that it is a problem. But I think that it sometimes needs to be pointed out that the real Alcott sisters were teenagers in the 1840's, not the 1860's, and that it was Louisa who later went to War as a nurse for the Union Army, not her father who went as a chaplain. The book and films show them living in the same house, Orchard House, when in reality they moved often, experiencing near destitution more then once. Eden's Outcasts, John Matteson's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson Alcott, describes the very real poverty experienced by the Alcott sisters. The girls often did not have enough to eat; the family was always inundated by debts. However, the girls received a classical education. It was very odd how they would go from studying German and Latin and discussing philosophy to a meager supper of squash and apples. All of this was due to their father's desire of pursuing Utopian projects at the expense of his family's well-being. 

Bronson Alcott was not a Christian; he did not accept the divinity of Christ and thought that every child was divine. He deemed it possible to create a heaven on earth by subduing human nature and by divesting oneself from the desire for material possessions. There is much of what he believed that mirrored Christian asceticism except that Christ was not the goal. It was not for the love of God that he embraced such austerity but for self-improvement. In his quest for perfection he forgot that his main duty was to feed his children and provide them with shelter and safety. It was his wife Abba Alcott, upon whom "Mrs. March" is based, who kept the family together. Although Mrs. Alcott struggled with her temper she managed to maintain a spirit of cheer and grace in the household, working like a beast of burden so that her girls could have a decent life. The happiness amid poverty that abounds in Little Women was a reflection of the reality, and it was a reality created by their mother. However, such dire poverty made all of the girls, except for Elizabeth who died young, resolve that they would never live the way their mother had been forced to live. It gave an edge to Louisa's determination to support the family through her writings, and give her mother a comfortable old age. In spite of the hardships, or maybe because of them, Louisa seemed to grasp the sacramentality of family life, of the rough-hewn young personalities who shape each other under the guidance of loving parents. 

For the most part, I think the casting of the 2019 Little Women is brilliant and provides some the best portrayals ever of the beloved characters. Only the role of Meg might have been better with someone other than Emma Watson. Emma is just too thin and introspective. The perfect Meg, in my opinion, is Willa Fitzgerald in the 2017 BBC series, who is softly pretty, vivacious and gentle, but determined. However, having James Norton as Mr. Brooke was an excellent choice by Gerwig. Norton is so handsome and such a gentleman that almost anyone (except for Jo and Aunt March) can forgive Meg for choosing poverty in order to be with him. I thought that Meg's proclamation to Jo is astonishingly counter-revolutionary and anti-feminist, as she says: "Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn't mean they're unimportant. I want a family and a home and I'm not scared of working and struggling..." Neither the film nor the book skimp on the hardships that do overwhelm Meg after her marriage, although her husband is reliable, hardworking and loving. She perseveres and finds contentment.

Jo and her writing ambitions are at the center of the novel as well as of the latest film adaptation. Jo's commitment to her writing is not just from the love of her craft. Jo, as did the real Louisa, sees writing as one of the few means open to her to rescue her family from poverty. Saoirse Ronan's gifted depiction of Jo, as well as the film's unique editing, highlight the obsessive nature of her "scribbling," which ultimately conflicts with her relationship with Laurie. Timothée Chalamet is the best Laurie ever, in my opinion. Together he and Saoirse's Jo bring to life one of the most famous duos in literature as never before. Jo and Laurie are not so tormented as Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights yet similarly they represent a kind of Eden, a Paradise Lost between two people who love each other so much yet cannot be together, because what they have is almost beyond this world. It is a relationship between a young man and a young woman that has all the electricity and magic of a great romance, with the innocent camaraderie of soulmates. Their two souls complete each other, and Gerwig heightens the effect by having the actors share clothing as spiritual twins who are yet opposites. Yet Jo cannot bring herself to the total surrender it would take to marry Laurie. She fears that emotional leap and what it might mean for her psychic equilibrium, since she must keep writing, she must support her family. The tragedy of Little Women is not the death of poor sweet Beth, but that Jo and Laurie, whom she alone calls "Teddy," are divided forever.

Beth has seemed to me to be the least interesting personae until now. Eliza Scanlen's Beth is carefully nuanced in way that made me pay more attention to her role in the family. Some people who saw the 2019 film think that Beth is the youngest, probably because Beth is shown playing with dolls, as she does in the novel. Beth is not the youngest in the Gerwig film; Amy is the youngest, as she is supposed to be. But yes, Beth is indeed thirteen or fourteen years old and still spoon-feeding her dolls at breakfast. This, combined with her pathological shyness and ability to create her own "happy world," as Louisa calls it in the book, makes me wonder if Beth would now be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. That, along the fact that she is a musical prodigy, since many people on the spectrum exhibit extraordinary talents and gifts. The gentle way Beth strokes Jo's arm while searching her face when asking about Laurie shows how Beth was able to connect on a deep emotional level with her sisters, showing affection while never being a rival. The viewer can see that Beth is truly the core of spiritual and emotional strength in the family, even for her parents, and that when she dies it leaves a huge hole that no one else can fill.

There has been a resurgence in appreciation for Amy March in the last couple of years, and Florence Pugh's depiction of the youngest sister is certainly partly responsible. In the beginning we are treated to a strong-willed and opinionated child, who can be exceedingly annoying as she interjects herself into her older sisters' business. Now I see how Beth, with her dolls and her happy little world, was probably driving Amy crazy. Amy, like Jo, is determined to defeat the family curse of poverty, and will do whatever she can within the bounds of morality and decency to break the cycle. Amy, however, resolves to be an accomplished lady; she does not flout convention like Jo, which is why she gets to go to Europe with their aunt. Her strength of will and personal charm and beauty captivate brokenhearted Laurie, whom she then proceeds to order about, without Laurie being fully aware of what has befallen him. He seems almost an emasculated Laurie. Gerwig's odd editing really highlights the rivalry between Jo and Amy over Laurie. From the beginning, Amy does not like being outshone by Jo but since she can never be her intellectual equal, she tries to outshine her as an elegant lady, becoming Laurie's consort, which is her ultimate goal.

I will conclude with a quote from Screen Rant:
 This 2019 Little Women movie is something new. It feels surprising. The performances are all stellar, with Saoirse Ronan's starring turn as Jo being some of her very best work. However, all of the characters are given room for complexity, from the often ridiculous Aunt March, here played with shrewdness and subtle care by Meryl Streep, to the sugar-sweet Beth, given new life and by Eliza Scanlen. Florence Pugh is a stand-out as Amy - at once confident and vulnerable - and Timothee Chalamet's Laurie is one of the first interpretations of the heart-throb that gets to the book character's infuriating mix of petulance, awkwardness, and sweetness.

 Ultimately, this is a Little Women about little women - all of them. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, but also the girls Marmee, Hannah, and Aunt March once were, and the adults the students at Jo's school will one day become. Gerwig's Little Women movie adaptation is not only one of the best but also one of the most daring film interpretations of Alcott's novel. But it will feel familiar to anyone who remembers what it was like to be grow up with adventure, hardship, and love. (Read more.)

Read more about the defense of Amy March, HERE.  And was Professor Bhaer Jewish? More on that, HERE.
Timothée Chalamet as Laurie/Teddy
James Norton as John Brooke
Meryl Streep as Aunt March
Louis Garrell as Professor Bhaer
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This Too Shall Pass…

From The Last Refuge:
Thankfully as a nation this crisis is causing us to reevaluate our priorities: faith, family, community and freedom; and seeing the easy dispatch of liberty also reignites that oft forgotten flickering flame…  
Journalists are less important than janitors. Our nation’s best athletes are healthcare workers rushing to assist those in need. The true heroes are not celebrities, but rather farmers, truck drivers, stock clerks, and supermarket cashiers.

The most valuable businesses do not glitter or present themselves with self-congratulatory award shows; they do today what they have always done to keep our food supply flowing. Perhaps now, at least for a few short weeks, we stop taking them for granted.

Effective right now comfortably invisible workers are recognized as critical priorities; or as the government has officially designated them “essential services.” These folks form the network of our lives; they always have, but we didn’t notice. Everything else is less than.

Any average hard-working American is worth more today than all those who chase the golden statues of Hollywood; and ultimately if they want to go down the superiority path… well, what they provide is essentially useless.
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The Curious Case of Proxima C

From Scientific American:
Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our sun, may harbor a second planet—still. “Still,” because astronomers first announced this candidate world in April 2019, based on observations and analyses that had yet to be published or peer-reviewed. Now more thoroughly vetted and bolstered by additional data, the study reporting the potential discovery appears today in the journal Science Advances. Yet certainty is elusive—the planet could still prove to be a mirage.

“Since the very first time we saw this [potential planetary] signal, we tried to be its worst enemies,” says Fabio Del Sordo, an astronomer at the University of Crete in Greece, who spearheaded the study, along with his colleague Mario Damasso of the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin in Italy. “We tried different tools to prove ourselves wrong, but we failed. However, we have to keep the doors open to all possible doubt and skepticism.” (Read more.)
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Friday, April 3, 2020

Gabrielle d'Estrées and Marie-Antoinette

Vive Henri IV
Vive ce roi vaillant !
Vive Henri IV
Vive ce roi vaillant !
Ce diable à quatre
A le triple talent
De boire de battre
Et d'être un vers galant.
The royalist anthem Vive Henri IV was from Collé's 1770 opera La partie de chasse d'Henri IV. In 1774 it was often sung to honor Louis XVI, became popular again during the Restoration in 1814, as is told in the novel Madame Royale. The lyrics which celebrate the monarch who was seen by the French people as the epitome of justice, kindness, and virility. It was an attempt to identify the Bourbon dynasty with the popular first Bourbon monarch, Henri IV. Louis XVI had also been seen as sharing with the King from Navarre an easy manner with the common folk, as well as a strong sense of justice and love of the hunt. Early in their reign, the King and Queen held a costume ball where everyone came in dress from the era of le bon roi Henri, with Marie-Antoinette herself garbed as Henri's beloved mistress, Gabrielle d'Estrées. It was part of the Queen's attempt to show that she was loved by her husband, and that she was his mistress as well as his wife. During the Restoration, members of the Bourbon family, especially the daughter of Louis XVI, the Duchess of Angoulême, were frequently welcomed with the anthem. After the fall of the Bourbons in 1830, the anthem was no longer played, and soon became a relic of the past. Share

The CCP VIRUS

From Marco Respinti:
China is a totalitarian regime that unlawfully detains, tortures, and kills⸺The Chinese communist regime systematically violates human rights, represses liberties, violates consciences, persecutes religions, and harasses ethnic minorities⸺The Beijing government fabricates fake news to confuse and dominate⸺Facing the challengeof the coronavirus, the regime has hidden the epidemic for weeks, and has silenced doctors, jailed journalists, and obstructed science⸺Now it acts as a "liberator", but it is only propaganda⸺Let's then stop calling this global pandemic a "Chinese virus"⸺Let's simply call it a "communist virus" or the "Chinese Communist Party virus", a disease that lies and kills. Subscribe at info@reteliberale.it, share this message, resist the infection. We are on Facebook, too.

China’s ruling system is a totalitarian regime led by a single party, the Chinese Communist Party (or CCP). It is a regime in which freedom and democracy do not exist. Chinese citizens are persecuted, tortured, and killed if they dare to stand up to the regime or simply ask questions.

China’s proudly Communist (or neo-post-communist) regime is also afake news industry, able of blowing smoke into the eyes of global observers and unjustly accusing those who oppose its liberticidal policy. A number of organizations, religious and secular, private and institutional, media and advocacy groups—groups such as Bitter Winter, AsiaNews, ChinaAid, Citizen Powers Initiative for China, Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, The Jamestown Foundation, World Uyghur Congress, Uyghur Human Rights Project, Uyghur Canadian Society, Campaign for Uyghurs, Sinopsis, International Campaign for Tibet, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Central Tibetan Administration, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press, The Epoch Times, China Uncensored, and many others—currently provide powerful antidotes to the lies disseminated by the regimeon a daily basis.

In China, all religions are persecuted: Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Jews, folk religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shouters, Association of Disciples, Falun Gong, The Church of Almighty God, and so on. When the regime does not have sufficientstrength to repress them harshly, it infiltrates and controls them, heavy-handedly intervening in their operations at first chance.

In Xinjiang, one million Uighurs have been unjustly imprisoned, guilty only of belonging to an ethnic minority and being believers (Muslims). The regime claims it is hosting them in “vocational centers”, but these are truly internment camps—in which some of the prisoners are senior and retired professionals—where people are tortured and die. One million people is the prudential figure that international documents use to estimate how many are detained, but independent researchers have reasonably increased thatnumber up to three million, plus thousands of other members of Turkic minorities (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars, and others). And those who live outside the camps live in constant terror, under the strictest control, in fear.

Tibet has also been experiencing a distressing situation. Everything Tibetan is being repressed and trampled on. There, Chinese surveillance is widespread and suffocating, too. High-techmethods of control, facial recognition systems, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, DNA profiling, prohibited or limited freedom of movement, and the use of fingerprints simply to access places of worship: this is daily life in China. (Read more.)
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The Mannheim Case

The case upon which the novel The Exorcist was based. From Return to Order:
The central figure in the story was a teenager known by the pseudonyms “Robbie Mannheim” or “Roland Doe.” While Robbie’s true identity and that of his relatives remains a secret the details of the extraordinary events of this 1949 exorcism were meticulously recorded in the book Possessed by Thomas Allen. Robbie grew up in Mount Rainier, Maryland. As the only child of Karl and Phyllis Mannheim, (also pseudonyms) he would often play games with adults. One such person was his Aunt Harriet, a spiritualist, who lived St. Louis, Missouri and frequently visited the Mannheims. During a visit in January of 1949, she taught her thirteen-year old nephew how to use a Ouija board.

Not long afterwards, the Mannheims noticed strange things happening around their son. They heard strange noises in his room such as the incessant sound of dripping water and later a scratching noise like claws scraping across wood. Around the same time, Aunt Harriet died and Robbie began using the Ouija board as a means to contact her. He would use the board for hours on end, until the game became for him a possession, both figuratively and literally.

Soon, his parents noticed alarming physical abnormalities on their son’s body such as scratch marks, welts and bruises, which appeared for no apparent reason. More disturbing still was the personality transformation. Their normally quiet, timid boy suddenly became aggressive with frequent outbursts of anger and violent temper tantrums directed at them. He began to speak in Latin, a language he had no means of knowing. That is when the parents decided they needed help.

They tried everything from a regular medical doctor, to psychologists, psychiatrists and even a psychic before finally turning to their minister, Rev. Luther Miles Schulze. While the parents already considered the possibility of diabolical possession, Pastor Schulze was skeptical. He looked upon possession “as a medieval relic, something that had been left to Catholics when the Luther-led Reformation split the Christian world.”2 (Read more.)


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Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Most Instagrammable Places in London

From Insider:
This fine Mayfair institution has been popular for years thanks to its instantly recognizable Gallery — known as the "pink room," among the Instagram crowd, and furnished with velvet millennial-pink chairs and David Shrigley artwork. Most descend on the restaurant to have afternoon tea in the pink room, ignoring all the other supremely arty spaces it has to offer.(Read more.)
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Crimes and Policy Violations

From The Daily Wire:
A new report highlights how the Department of Justice routinely fails to prosecute high-ranking department officials despite criminal referrals from the department’s inspector general. RealClearInvestigations (my former employer) examined several instances of DOJ employees committing crimes but not getting prosecuted. For example, an FBI attorney shoplifted from the Marine Corps Base Quantico Exchange multiple times before getting caught with $257.99 worth of stolen cosmetics. She admitted to also stealing from other stores but wasn’t prosecuted.
“Not that it was a surprise. The Justice Department regularly declines to prosecute high-ranking current and former department officials, even when its Office of Inspector General provides the grounds for it,” the outlet reported. “The Department of Justice OIG does not keep complete public records on the number of prosecutions that result from its investigations. But the office does keep track of certain cases – those involving wrongdoing by senior DoJ managers and officials that Justice declines to prosecute.”
In 2019 alone, the OIG “issued 27 such reports of alleged wrongdoing by senior Justice Department officials and employees that went unprosecuted – everything from nepotism in hiring, to making false claims on mortgage documents, to ‘lack of candor’ with federal investigators, to sexual assault.” You might recall the “lack of candor” crime, as it related to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lying to federal prosecutors regarding his role into the false claims that President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia to steal the election. Former FBI Director James Comey was also referred for prosecution by the OIG. (Read more.)
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The Secret History of a Cold War Mastermind

From Wired:
Soon after Weiss’ obituary appeared in the Post, Keup received a call from the wife of one of Weiss’ old intelligence community colleagues: “After what he and my husband did to the Soviets,” she said stiffly, “there’s no way they would let that pass. If you think Gus committed suicide, then you believe in fairy tales.” 
In March 2004, months after Weiss’ death, former Air Force secretary and Reagan adviser Thomas C. Reed published a memoir entitled At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War. In one passage Reed describes Weiss’ role as the architect of an unprecedented program of Cold War tech sabotages that culminated with the destruction of a gas pipeline deep in the wilds of Siberia. According to Reed’s book, the blast, classified by NORAD as the largest non-nuclear explosion in recorded history, had gone unreported for 20 years. 
A handful of news outlets, including Reuters and WIRED, immediately picked up the remarkable tale, though not without a note of skepticism. The story of the pipeline operation gathered momentum. William Safire, Weiss’ old Nixon administration colleague, wrote a column in The New York Times describing his friend Gus’ genius. A Canadian filmmaker made a documentary about the caper. Tim Weiner, New York Times correspondent, wrote about the operation in his national book award winning CIA history A Legacy of Ashes and then again, years later, for Reuters. (Read more.)
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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

St. Catherine of Alexandria and Hypatia

St. Catherine and the wheel
St. Catherine and the wheel
St Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr

The Antikythera mechanism
St. Catherine of Alexandria
Let us praise Catherine the radiant bride of Christ,
Guardian of Sinai, our helper and supporter.
By the power of the Spirit, she silenced the arrogance of the ungodly.
Crowned as a martyr, she now implores great mercy for all.

—Troparion (Tone 5) in honor of the Great-martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria

As I mentioned in a recent post, while researching St. Catherine of Alexandria for an ongoing project, I kept coming upon the story of the Neo-Platonist mathematician Hypatia and the claim that the fourth century martyr and the fifth century philosopher are one and the same person. First of all, let us visit the city of Alexandria in Egypt, unlike any other city in the ancient world. It was founded by Alexander the Great, who bestowed the governance of Egypt upon his childhood friend and general, Ptolemy. When Ptolemy became the new pharaoh, it was his goal, as a former pupil of Aristotle, to turn Alexandria into a center of learning, combining the mystique of ancient Egypt with the wisdom of the Greeks. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for three hundred years. While they did not, until Cleopatra VII's time, fully take to the Egyptian language and religion, they did adopt the Egyptian practice of marrying close relatives, which many scholars believe contributed to both the decay and corruption of the dynasty. With the on-going incest being accompanied by murder, they had generations of assassinations of family members by other family members, so that it is amazing that the Ptolemy dynasty went on for as long as it did. They did, nevertheless, maintain an extraordinary lighthouse, as well as a great library which was connected to the royal palace. Every ship that came into the Alexandrian port had to surrender its books so that they could be copied for the library.

The great library of Alexandria was destroyed in 48 BC, during the reign of Cleopatra VII, when the Romans under Julius Caesar were fighting with pirates and lost control of the fire from the burning ships in the harbor. That left the smaller library called the Serapeum, which was destroyed during the civil unrest in 391 AD. We know that copies of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, were probably destroyed in the burning of the original great library of Alexandria. We also know that Mark Antony, Cleopatra's second husband, brought 20,000 books from the library at Pergamon to Alexandria to make up for the books lost when the great library burned. For more on the details on the various upheavals of Alexandria, I cannot recommend highly enough The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard.

Another aspect of Alexandria is that during the Hellenistic era there were known to be all kinds of mechanisms, including automatons, that were mostly used for temple worship and entertainments. Some were were of practical and scientific use, such as the water-clock of Ctesibius, invented in Alexandria itself. In 1900, some Greek sponge divers discovered a 2000-year-old shipwreck off of the island of Antikythera. Among the wreckage was a contraption made of wheels and dials which seemed almost like an ancient clock. It was christened the "Antikythera mechanism." According to Smithsonian:
The Antikythera mechanism was similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. A rotating black and silver ball showed the phase of the Moon. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. There were also two dial systems on the back of the case, each with a pin that followed its own spiral groove, like the needle on a record player. One of these dials was a calendar. The other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. (Read more.)
The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt was Cleopatra VII, whose famed beauty lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her charm, especially her melodious voice and scintillating intelligence and wit. She kept her capital city Alexandria a center of culture; it was the Paris of antiquity. Cleopatra received the best education available in the known world at the time. Her inherent thirst for knowledge made her enthusiastic for her own enlightenment. Among the nine languages she spoke was an ancient Egyptian dialect that sounded like the squeaking of bats. Cleopatra was fascinated with the native culture of her people, and was a scholar in her own right. She set a precedent for learned women in Alexandria that would last for centuries. With the suicides of Cleopatra and Mark Antony came the end of Egyptian self-rule and the beginning of Roman domination. But it was the early days of the Roman Empire that would see the birth of Jesus Christ and the dawn of Christianity.

 Egypt was important to Christianity from the very beginning, due to the Jewish presence there. The Jewish community in Alexandria was as old as the city itself, founded in the third century BC. It is highly probably that it was to Alexandria that Joseph and Mary with the Child Jesus fled from King Herod (Matthew 2:14). The Jewish community in Alexandria included many artisans and St. Joseph would have no doubt found work as a joiner. Christianity arrived as early as 33 AD with St. Mark the Evangelist, and for the next 700 years Alexandria was to be one of the greatest centers of the Christian world, the home of many martyrs, hermits, bishops, and holy penitents. 

Christians of Alexandria suffered from fierce pagan persecutions, spreading over several centuries. According to Tour Egypt:
The Egyptians before Christianity had always been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion, having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the Roman Empire and the final dethroning of the god-king Pharaohs. Many of the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the idea of the judgment of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful. The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the Coptic cross...), itself also a symbol for eternal life. Furthermore, the belief that God had chosen Egypt as a safe place for His infant son to hide him from Herod was a great source of pride to the Egyptian Christians. It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman Dominion....
Yet the greatest persecutions on the young religion came at the hands of the Roman government. Emperor Nero had set the precedent in AD 64, about the same time as the martyrdom of Saint Peter. It was unusual, for the actual offense was simply to be a Christian or to profess the Christian faith, rather than any kind of criminal acts that might go along with it....An arrested Christian could receive a pardon simply by offering incense on a Roman altar, but many refused to do so, citing scripture passages urging faith in the one God. Thus the true "crime" of the persecuted Christians was their refusal to do homage to the Roman gods, including the emperor. Those who did refuse to bow to the Roman religion were imprisoned, often tortured, thrown to the wild animals in the coliseum, or suffered execution by any number of other means. Rather than discouraging the Christians, these actions encouraged them and reinforced their faith, echoing the words of Jesus that those who suffered persecution because of his name were truly blessed. These heroes of the Christians were called "martyrs," a word that means "witnesses." In the first century this persecution was largely done by the government, though after a few decades they seem to have lost interest (or become fearful of the sect) and in the second and early third centuries the mobs took over the persecutions. Decius and Diocletian, in the 250s and early 300s respectively, brought the imperium back into the persecution, but it was clear by this time it was a losing battle as Christianity had penetrated even into the highest levels of society.

It was in Egypt that some of the greatest defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts worshiped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would be converted by the example of the martyr. Diocletian was particularly brutal, executing so many Christians in 284 alone that the Coptic Church dates its calendar, the Calendar of the Martyrs (Anno Martyri) from that time. Despite these persecutions, Christianity seems to have grown rapidly in Egypt, spreading to Fayoum in 257 via Anba Dionysius, and in 260 even down into the Thebaid. But in 306 something happened that would change the destiny of Christianity forever: Constantine became emperor. (Read more.)
Saint Catherine, born around 287, is said to have died circa 305 during the persecution of Maxentius,  later one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; although some scholars say she suffered under his father Emperor Maximian. It was under Maximian that Catherine's reputed father Costas (or Costus or Constantius) was Roman governor of Alexandria. Lorenzo Cavelli of the University of Venice has  researched the familial origins of St. Catherine, who it seems had connections to the island of Cyprus, where an ancient oral and architectural tradition has the young saint spending part of her childhood there. (Cavelli, Lorenzo. "Cypriot Origins, Constantinian Blood: The Legend of the Young St. Catherine of Alexandria." Identity/Identities in Late Medieval Cyprus. Nicosia, 2014, pp 361-390.) Her father was said to have either been a king or else have had royal relatives and so Catherine is described as having royal blood. Her legend is as follows:
According to the popular tradition, Catherine was born of a patrician family of Alexandria and from childhood had devoted herself to study. Through her reading she had learned much of Christianity and had been converted by a vision of Our Lady and the Holy Child. When Maxentius began his persecution, Catherine, then a beautiful young girl, went to him and rebuked him boldly for his cruelty. He could not answer her arguments against his pagan gods, and summoned fifty philosophers to confute her. They all confessed themselves won over by her reasoning, and were thereupon burned to death by the enraged Emperor. He then tried to seduce Catherine with an offer of a consort's crown, and when she indignantly refused him, he had her beaten and imprisoned. The Emperor went off to inspect his military forces, and when he got back he discovered that his wife Faustina and a high official, one Porphyrius, had been visiting Catherine and had been converted, along with the soldiers of the guard. They too were put to death, and Catherine was sentenced to be killed on a spiked wheel.
When she was fastened to the wheel, her bonds were miraculously loosed and the wheel itself broke, its spikes flying off and killing some of the onlookers. She was then beheaded. The modern Catherine-wheel, from which sparks fly off in all directions, took its name from the saint's wheel of martyrdom. The text of the  Acts of this illustrious saint states that her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai, where a church and monastery were afterwards built in her honor. This legend was, however, unknown to the earliest pilgrims to the mountain. In 527 the Emperor Justinian built a fortified monastery for hermits in that region, and two or three centuries later the story of St. Catherine and the angels began to be circulated.
While the legend is not backed by contemporary source material, it must be remembered that the records of the many Alexandrian Christian martyrdoms, including that of St. Catherine, may have been destroyed in the burning of the Serapeum in 391. And what books were left were destroyed by the Arabs. The Arabs, who conquered the city in the seventh century, according to popular lore, used those books they did not approve of to heat their baths. Eusebius (circa 260-circa 340), Bishop of Caesarea and a father of the Church, would have been a contemporary of Catherine's, living through the persecutions and the eventual triumph of the Church under Constantine. According to EWTN:
Eusebius, 'father of Church history,' writing around the year 320, had heard of a noble young Christian woman of Alexandria whom the Emperor ordered to come to his palace, presumably to become his mistress, and who, on refusing, was punished by banishment and the confiscation of her estates. The story of St. Catherine may have sprung from some brief record such as this, which Christians writing at a later date expanded. The last persecutions of Christians, though short, were severe, and those living in the peace which followed seem to have had a tendency to embellish the traditions of their martyrs that they might not be forgotten. (Read more.)
Or perhaps the original documents were lost in a fire, as so many were. The young woman mentioned by Eusebius was named by some to be "Dorothea"; others say that Dorothea and Catherine were the same person, and that "Catherine" was Dorothea's baptismal name. According to scholar John Sanidopoulos, the oldest extant reference to the virgin martyr Catherine by name is in a seventh century Syrian liturgical text. The oldest surviving version of her life can be found in the eleventh century Menologion of Byzantine Emperor Basil II in which she is referred to as Aekaterine, which means "ever pure." The monastery on Mount Sinai, originally built in the sixth century to hold the relics of the Burning Bush, replacing an earlier chapel built by Empress St. Helena, was called after St. Catherine when her incorrupt body was discovered there around the year 800. Relics of the saint are preserved there to this day and are said to exude a miraculous healing oil. Like the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-7), which was burned but not consumed, Catherine was said to have endured a hideous martyrdom but neither the ravages of time nor the violence of men could destroy her body.

It was through the visits of medieval pilgrims and crusaders to the monastery on Mount Siniai, beginning in the eleventh century, that the cult of St. Catherine of Alexandria spread to Europe, where she became known as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. It was through the miracles wrought by her intercessory prayers that she became one of the most popular saints in the West, even as she had long been revered in the East.

Let us return to Alexandria and to the philosopher Hypatia, born between 350–370 and dying in 414. Hypatia was born 40 or 50 years after the death of St. Catherine and her own death was more than a century after Catherine's. With the legalization of Christianity came a shifting of the power structure in a city which, because of its great diversity, had always been prone to riots and mob violence. It was in the midst of such an upheaval that the philosopher Hypatia was murdered. Hypatia was a Hellenist neo-Platonist philosopher and mathematician who taught the sons of the elite of Alexandria, both Christian and pagan alike. People tend to see her as a sort of high school Algebra teacher, but she was more than that. In those days, mathematics and numerology were one and the same, as were astrology and astronomy, all of which were considered sciences well into the Renaissance. The fact that devout Christian families entrusted Hypatia with their children's education meant that they held her in high regard. She was known for her wisdom and virtue, and many of her students turned to her for advice later in life which, since her students became bishops and government officials, caused her to become caught in the midst of tense political struggles. From Renaissance Mathematics:
Of course the most well known episode concerning Hypatia is her brutal murder during Lent in 414 CE. There are various accounts of this event and the further from her death they are the more exaggerated and gruesome they become. A rational analysis of the reports allows the following plausible reconstruction of what took place.
An aggressive mob descended on Hypatia’s residence probably with the intention of intimidating rather than harming her. Unfortunately, they met her on the open street and things got out of hand. She was hauled from her carriage and dragged through to the streets to the Caesareum church on the Alexandrian waterfront. Here she was stripped and her body torn apart using roof tiles. Her remains were then taken to a place called Cinaron and burnt.
Viewed from a modern standpoint this bizarre sequence requires some historical comments. Apparently raging mobs and pitched battles between opposing mobs were a common feature on the streets of fourth-century Alexandria...What is more puzzling is the motive for the attack. (Read more.)
The parabalani, who were said to be responsible for burning the Serapeum library in 391 and murdering Hypatia in 414, have been described as monks but they were not under vows or holy orders. They were a gang of laymen who began as bodyguards for Christian prelates during the days of persecution but as Christianity became legal and a political force, the parabalani went more and more on the offensive.  By Hypatia's time they appear to have been no better than a bunch of Klan-like thugs. The political struggle between the Roman prefect Orestes, Hypatia's former pupil, and the Patriarch St. Cyril, led to the horrific murder of Hypatia, not because of her love of science and philosophy but because of her perceived political influence.

Murder of Hypatia
Let us consider again the Antikythera mechanism, the ancient hand-powered Greek analogue computer. As a philosopher, scholar and teacher, Hypatia may have had access to one. Was her association with the wheels of the device one reason why she became seen as the model for St. Catherine, traditionally associated with a wheel? On the other hand, St. Catherine, who was brought up in the Alexandrian tradition of high learning, might have used such a mechanism in her studies, too. It might be speculated that the "wheel" on which St. Catherine was tortured, which was said to have been a complex device with wheels and razors, might have been modeled on the Antikythera mechanism, as a  kind of "Antikythera of horror." Perhaps such a torture device had been intended to mock her study of the heavenly bodies. I am thinking that since torturing Christians was often public entertainment in the Roman times perhaps the wheel was like an "Antikythera of horror" which was designed to mutilate criminals but, according to the legend, it broke when Catherine touched it.

Were St. Catherine and Hypatia the same person? Let us examine the pros and cons. There are several aspects of their stories which are similar and favor the theory that they are one and the same. Both were 1.) from Alexandria, 2.) supremely well-educated philosophers, 3.) beautiful, 4.) chaste, 5.) elicited hatred from powerful opponents and 6.) died violently. However, the discrepancies between the two women outweigh the similarities. St. Catherine was a Christian; Hypatia was a pagan. They lived in different centuries. Catherine died a full hundred years before Hypatia during a time when many Christians were known to have been murdered. An essential part of Catherine's legend is that she was young whereas by all accounts Hypatia was a middle-aged or elderly woman. Their individual means of torture and execution were very different, and the means of death and instruments of torture were almost always a huge element in the Acts of the martyrs. Catherine's execution was the result of breaking the civil law and the carrying out of a sentence, while Hypatia's murder was the spontaneous result of a crazed, rampaging mob. 

But the main reason that I believe that St. Catherine of Alexandria was a real person and not just a Christianized version of Hypatia, is the centuries and centuries of a devoted following due to miracles wrought through her intercession and even visions of her, such as St. Catherine's appearance to St. Joan of Arc in the fifteenth century. In the medieval times, there was no formal canonization but a saint's popularity spread based upon their effectiveness. They became known as saints through the voice of the people. According to Lindsey K. Williams in Academia
Medieval saints were canonized for one of a few different reasons, but mainly if they were martyred or if they enacted miracles during their lifetime in the name of God. Miracles during the lifetime or after the death of the saint are proof that the saint is in heaven and interceding on behalf of people who are living. Her legend says that after she was beheaded, Catherine’s bones were transported to the monastery at Mount Sinai and began to ooze an oil that had healing properties. The miracles validated her holiness as the oil continued to exude from her bones to serve those in need.
St. Catherine became the patroness of many petitioners, including unmarried girls; apologists; wheelwrights; potters; spinners; archivists; dying people; educators; girls; jurists; knife sharpeners; lawyers; librarians; libraries;  mechanics; millers; milliners; hat-makers; nurses; philosophers; preachers; scholars; schoolchildren; scribes; secretaries; spinsters; stenographers; students; tanners; theologians. Churches and monasteries all over the East and the West have borne her name, as have many saints, scholars, queens and empresses. Not only is she an exemplar of purity and courage, but St. Catherine stands as a testimony of the long Christian tradition of education for women, education which when placed at the service of the Gospel has the power to defeat the machinations of the evil one.

Saint Joan visited by St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Michael
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Too Many Eggs?

From Life Hacker:
It is possible that, while stocking up to stay home, you purchased too much of one particular item. I did this with eggs. It all happened so fast: I was at my local restaurant supply store, buying a normal amount (four pounds) of butter, when I was suddenly moved by the spirit (and A.A. Newton) to add five dozen eggs to my cart. I eat a lot of eggs, and I use a lot of eggs in recipe development but—even for me—it was too many eggs. Luckily, I have strategies for dealing with such. (Read more.)
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The Mystery of the Expansion of the Universe

From Phys.org:
The Earth, solar system, the entire Milky Way and the few thousand galaxies closest to us move in a vast "bubble" that is 250 million light years in diameter, where the average density of matter is half as high as for the rest of the universe. This is the hypothesis advanced by a theoretical physicist from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) to solve a conundrum that has been splitting the scientific community for a decade: At what speed is the universe expanding? Until now, at least two independent calculation methods have arrived at two values that are different by about 10% with a deviation that is statistically irreconcilable. This new approach, which is set out in the journal Physics Letters B, erases this divergence without making use of any "new physics." (Read more.)

From Live Science:
Nine hundred million years after the Big Bang, in the epoch of our universe's earliest galaxies, there was already a black hole 1 billion times the size of our sun. That black hole sucked in huge quantities of ionized gas, forming a galactic engine — known as a blazar — that blasted a superhot jet of bright matter into space. On Earth, we can still detect the light from that explosion more than 12 billion years later.
Astronomers had previously discovered evidence of primeval supermassive black holes in slightly younger "radio-loud active galactic nuclei," or RL AGNs. RL AGNs are galaxies with cores that look extra-bright to radio telescopes, which is considered evidence that they contain supermassive black holes. Blazars are a unique type of RL AGN that spit out two narrow jets of "relativistic" (near-light-speed) matter in opposite directions. Those jets emit narrow beams of light at many different wavelengths and have to be pointed right at Earth for us to detect them across such vast distances. This new blazar discovery moves the date of the oldest confirmed supermassive black hole to within the first billion years of the universe's history and suggests there were other, similar black holes in that era that we haven't detected. (Read more.)
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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Le Bristol


 From Harper's Bazaar Arabia:
Although surrounded by elegance on Paris’ Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Le Bristol stands proudly in the knowledge that it is the main attraction. The Parisian palace is rich with century-old stories and is bursting with furniture plucked straight from Marie Antoinette’s mood board (presumably).

You wouldn’t know it was a family-run hotel by the opulence that fills each and every room – the only giveaway would be Fa-Roun, the live-in Burmese cat, sleeping atop the concierge desk. Through Le Bristol’s gleaming double doors, held open by staff with equally gleaming smiles, you’ll find the pièce de résistance: a courtyard so perfect you would almost be shocked to learn the grass wasn’t cut by hand.  (Read more.)
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Gardening and Health

From Penn-Live:
It’s already possible to get out there and plant cool-season vegetable seeds, such as peas, radishes, lettuce, spinach, carrots, kale, and kohlrabi, as well as onion sets, potatoes, and transplants of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce.
Greenhouses have been exempted from the state’s guidelines for the closing of non-essential businesses since access to food (i.e. seeds and vegetable plants) is considered essential. On warm days, get out there and cut back last season’s dead ornamental grasses and perennial foliage. Overgrown perennials also can be dug and divided now. While you’re out there, enjoy the season’s first-blooming bulbs and shrubs that are two to three weeks ahead of schedule because of the warm winter. Pick up fallen branches, edge your garden beds, rake debris off the lawn, and go ahead and seed/overseed any bare or thinning areas of the lawn. (Read more.)
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Tomb of Alexander the Great

From Ancient Origins:
In 2004, scientist and author Dr Andrew Michael Chugg wrote The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great in which he explained how Alexander the Great’s tomb was initially located near Memphis at the Serapeum complex in Egypt where a temple was built by the last native pharaoh of Egypt, Nectanebo II .

Oddly, this temple entrance was guarded by sculptures of Greek poets and philosophers, including Pindar, Homer and Plato, all of whom are associated with Alexander the Great. The 2004 book made the point that the temple of Nectanebo II at the Serapeum, guarded by Greek statues, is the obvious candidate for an initial tomb of Alexander. Now, Chugg claims, the match of the piece of tomb from Venice for the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II in London shows it was used to entomb Alexander at Memphis.

Alexander’s body disappeared when the Roman emperor banned pagan worship in AD 392 and a tomb of St Mark appeared at the same time in what was previously a region occupied by Alexander’s tomb.

In a 2011 episode of the National Geographic Channel television series  Mystery Files , Andrew Chugg claimed that Alexander the Great's body had been stolen from Alexandria, Egypt, by Venetian merchants who mistook it for that of  Saint Mark the Evangelist . When they smuggled the remains to Venice, the remains soon after became venerated as Saint Mark the Evangelist in the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco.

According to Mr Chugg, the shocking inference following his new evidence is that the remains of St Mark the Evangelist within a coffin in the high altar in St Mark s in Venice might be that of Alexander the Great. (Read more.)

From The Vintage News:
According to ancient reports, the king’s body was first buried in Memphis, Egypt, and then moved to Alexandria. After his death, many believed Alexander was a god and came to worship at his tomb. There is a reference to Alexander’s body being moved to Alexandria around 280 BC. Also mentioned is a memorial building constructed to house the body. Alexander had proclaimed himself Pharaoh of Egypt while alive. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian in the first century BC, wrote that Alexander’s body was mummified in ancient Egyptian style. The body was then placed in a gold sarcophagus. (Read more.)

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Your Guide to the Black Death

The Great Mortality. From History Extra:
In the Middle Ages, the Black Death, or ‘pestilencia’, as contemporaries called various epidemic diseases, was the worst catastrophe in recorded history. Some dubbed it ‘magna mortalitas’ (great mortality), emphasising the death rate. It destroyed a higher proportion of the population than any other single known event. One observer noted ‘the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead.’ No one could be sure what caused it.

Breaking out in ‘the east’, as medieval people put it, the Black Death came north and west after striking the eastern Mediterranean and Italy, Spain and France. It then came to Britain, where it struck Dorset and Hampshire along the south coast of England simultaneously. The plague then spread north and east, then on to Scandinavia and Russia. (Read more.)

From National Geographic:

The plague was once the most feared disease in the world, capable of wiping out hundreds of millions of people in seemingly unstoppable global pandemics and afflicting its victims with painfully swollen lymph nodes, blackened skin, and other gruesome symptoms
In 17th-century Europe, the physicians who tended to plague victims wore a costume that has since taken on sinister overtones: they covered themselves head to toe and wore a mask with a long bird-like beak. The reason behind the beaked plague masks was a misconception about the very nature of the dangerous disease.


During that period's outbreaks of the bubonic plague—a pandemic that recurred in Europe for centuries—towns gripped by the disease hired plague doctors who practiced what passed for medicine on rich and poor residents alike. These physicians prescribed what were believed to be protective concoctions and plague antidotes, witnessed wills, and performed autopsies—and some did so while wearing beaked masks. (Read more.)

From Ancient Origins:
The reason the cause of death is so important is that many archaeological researchers have suspected Africa was struck by a historic bubonic plague, and the Iroungou bones might hold an answer. According to a March 2019 article published on Science , in the 14th century Black Death swept across Europe, Asia, and “North Africa,” killing up to 50% of the populations of major cities, but archaeologists and historians have assumed that the plague, Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas infesting rodents, didn't make it across the Sahara Desert . (Read more.)
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